A year ago, Anoop Desai was just another face in the madding crowd at the N.C. State Fair -- seeing the sights, smelling the smells, eating the deep-fried grub. At the 2009 edition, however, Desai finds himself as one of the attractions, performing Thursday night at Dorton Arena.
What happened in the interim, of course, was "American Idol." Desai, who sang with the Clef Hangers while studying folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill, had a fine run this past season and made the top seven of the finals (good enough to earn a spot on the annual "American Idol" concert tour). Now he's in the process of finding out how far that might take him.
"My goal right now is to be a pop singer and to be good at it," Desai says by phone from Los Angeles. "I hope that will mean I won't have to go back to school. I've been lucky to have an amazing education ... But music is still my first love. I just never thought I could do it for a living. Now that I have this opportunity, it's full steam ahead."
In following up his "American Idol" showing with a State Fair performance, Desai is following in the footsteps of another North Carolina-born finalist. That would be Clay Aiken, who sang at the fair after finishing second to Ruben Studdard on the show's 2003 season.
"I remember Clay Aiken playing the fair, and that seemed like such a cool, accessible thing to do for friends and neighbors," Desai says. "So I wanted to do this to thank the people who voted for me and supported me along the way -- to say, 'Hey, I'm a native North Carolinian, I appreciate the support and I want to do this for y'all.'"
Desai's other order of business is to secure management and a record deal. His contract with "American Idol" expired at the end of August, so he's free to pursue deals outside the show's orbit. To that end, Desai was back in the Triangle this month to record some demos at Raleigh's Osceola Studios.
He declines to say which songs he recorded, beyond noting that they're in the same R&B/pop vein he worked on "American Idol." Desai covered songs by Boyz II Men, Bobby Brown, Usher and Michael Jackson over the course of the season, and he even found a way to turn Willie Nelson's country hit "You Were Always on My Mind" into an R&B quiet-storm ballad.
"I draw inspiration from a lot of people in the pop and R&B world," Desai says. "That's what I'm going for. In terms of the classics, that's Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke. In today's pop, it's Keri Hilson, Ne-Yo, Chrisette Michele -- a host of people who have made an impact on the industry the way I want to, singing the type of music I want to be singing."
Meantime, the State Fair beckons -- as does the food. And Desai isn't just a regular -- he's an authority. He wrote his undergraduate folklore thesis at UNC-CH about the mythology of Southern barbecue and regional identity, so don't be surprised if you bump into him on the midway, in line for something deep-fried.
"I've gone to the fair almost every year," Desai says. "Since I was old enough to remember, I think I missed maybe three years. It's always a great time, and the cuisine is one of the main reasons to go. The fried Snickers bar is my favorite by far, although it does take a bit of work. Your body is not supposed to be ingesting that, by any means. But the end result is you're happy and tired."